One felt instant sympathy for the two unlucky American backpackers in John Landis's An American Werewolf in London because they were basically sweet, goofy guys with a cheerfully ironic sense of humor. It was painful to watch one of them turn into a "human meatloaf" of the undead and the other to suffer tragically through a hellish lycanthropic curse. But the times have changed, and our American backpackers in the 2000s, as evidenced by the two guys in Eli Roth's Hostel, have become coarse and jaded. They're just as horny, but they want thrills and they want them now, and it doesn't matter how vapid or graphic or perverse, as long as it's fast, cheap, and out of control.
Anyone who's worked in an office where some dim-bulb jock type delights in emailing video clips of defecation fetishes or girls vomiting on each other will instantly recognize the two American yokels who traverse through Eastern Europe in Hostel searching for foreign chicks to satisfy their whims. Film Freak Central's Walter Chaw was revolted by the film's pointlessness and artlessness. "t's homophobic, misogynistic, and just as dangerous and juvenile as a fraternity hazing," he claims. Never one to pull punches when it comes to combating ignorance, Chaw is certainly on the right track. He has hit the nail on the head when it comes to describing the mindset of backpackers Paxton (confident Jay Hernandez) and Josh (self-effacing Derek Richardson), not to mention their "king of swing" Icelandic buddy Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), who loves dropping his pants at every opportunity and proclaiming he's shaved his ass cheeks as well as his balls. These men are pigs, but what makes Hostel both cathartic and unnerving is its presentation of such pigs being brought into a virtual slaughterhouse for our sadistic viewing pleasure.
When extreme, body-crunching violence is inflicted on these pigs, the playing field gets leveled. Viewers who identify with the pigs, or simply loathe them, are asked to sit through a descent into unadulterated depravity—though you can't say they didn't "ask for it." They wanted sin, right? Well, they get it in spades. Paxton, Josh, and Oli are told about a remote Slovakian hostel where the women go sexually wild for foreigners. It isn't long before three heavily accented, slinky Slovakians lure our heroes out to an all-night club for some passionate sexual hijinks. (Readers who plan to bear witness to the gut-wrenching horrors of Hostel are advised to stop reading here, since the movie takes a turn toward the mysterious after this night of partying.) When someone from the hostel goes missing, our dim-witted American heroes chalk it up to "things being different in a foreign country." I wonder if the Jiminy Crickets in the audience will add "xenophobic" to their conscience thought-bubbles, since the villagers are presented as unsavory types, though one might argue the American characters are themselves xenophobic and get their just desserts for being vapid, racist, sexist, obnoxious pigs.
I'm not sure how much thought Roth put into how we the audience should feel about the characters in Hostel. I assume he simply thought Paxton and Josh were funny. His movie is deliberately free of subtext, and there's no deep hidden critique of the free-spirited American abroad. What's more interesting is that no matter how much you dislike Paxton and Josh at first glance, one is bound to empathize with them as Hostel draws on. It takes a turn toward the unapologetically violent, as mean and visceral as the limb-chopping finale of Audition (Takashi Miike has a memorable cameo as a persona of evil in Hostel) or the gory, Greek tragedy tongue slicing in Oldboy. But the immoderate blood shedding of Audition or Oldboy felt like artistic provocation. Roth just wants to provide sensations, and plenty of them. It's a torture show in underground basements, where the victims are handcuffed and bound in chairs forced to endure unspeakable torment. That's not hyperbole, either. Roth doesn't look away when characters are brutalized, and if you don't have the stomach for watching a character try to cross the floor with nearly chopped-off ankles, this is not the movie for you. (I'm sure you can find a DVD of March of the Penguins instead.)
Hostel is in the tradition of nasty cinema from the '70s and '80s that wondered how much gore spectacle a viewer could endure. It might be simply repulsive if the frat boy heroes weren't such obnoxious turn offs for me in the early going. It reminds me of a recent dialogue I had with a college professor, who claimed she enjoyed watching horror films where college students die, because it cathartically purged her hostility toward some of her pupils. "Let's face it," she said, "most viewers went to House of Wax to see Paris Hilton die." She may be right. But Hostel doesn't achieve the effect of having you sympathize with the monster (as we do in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when Leatherface panics after dispatching his third victim, running to the window in fear as if to say, "Where are these people coming from? Why can't they leave me alone?") We're never privileged to know the monsters, whereas we do know the asshole characters they are brutalizing. It has a strange effect: instant empathy for a character we may have instinctively disliked. As Hostel moves into its funhouse final act where the sole survivor works overtime to escape the charnel-house, Roth pulls off the impossible, in that we want "Paris Hilton" to live (maybe minus a few fingers, though).
Has Roth grown as a filmmaker since his debut Cabin Fever? He remains purposefully, deliberately sophomoric in his approach to character, dialogue, and situations. If you replaced every single one of his actors with the kids from South Park, you'd have exactly the same movie (and the added benefit of the pop-culture irony the South Park creators provide that Roth remains infuriatingly oblivious to). Still, Roth delivers on the visceral, jaw-ripping horror. He knows how to cinematically build a frightening sequence and deliver on it with a Grand Guignol payoff. Anyone who thinks he's making a cattle prod whose sole purpose is to shock may well be right, but what's different about Hostel is its maker's slow, deliberate willingness to go all the way without flinching. It's discomfort taken to the level of the cathartic. I hesitate to criticize my colleague Walter Chaw for labeling it corrupt; but its very corruption is what makes it what it is—and that can't be separated from the audacity of the final product. Hostel is one nasty apple.